Dialoging with Elephants: Jonathan Haidt and The Righteous Mind

— This article by Jerry Cates, first published on  17 November 2013, was last revised on 28 April 2014. © Govinthenews Vol. 4:11(2).

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My wife and I recently spent a delightful evening with a group of genuine native Texans, all but one of whom hailed from the little town of Snyder, at the gateway to the Texas panhandle. It is rare to find such people. Texas has always been a great melting pot for “immigrants” like Jan and me; transplants from every state in the Union. Only a small fraction of today’s Texans were actually born here, but we spent that evening dining with five such people, awed by the stories they told.

Snyder, in Scurry County, predates the latter by two years. Its town plan was drawn up in 1882, but the county didn’t come into existence until 1884. Sixty six years later, in 1948, when oil was discovered in the Canyon Reef area north of town, it became one of a large number of Texas boomtowns. Later, when the boom tapered off, oil remained a vital part of the local economy. Today Snyder continues as one of the leading oil producing areas in Texas. Its citizens were, more often than not, raised on rural ranches and farms, learning the ABC’s of rugged individualism in the best schools life can provide… hard, honest labor. Usually, on graduating from high school, most left their family spreads to study at one of the colleges and universities in other parts of the state. Those we ate Texas BBQ with that night were either graduates of Texas Tech, or the University of Texas at Austin. One was a lobbyist with the petrochemical industry. Another was a dentist, his wife a celebrated principal at a local elementary school. Still another worked as a librarian at a private Austin-based university.

The dinner was informal and congenial, which is to say we didn’t discuss collegiate football. To no one’s surprise, however, table talk eventually did gravitate to the equally controversial subjects of oil, economics, and politics. At one point I lamented how difficult it is, when debating politics with others, to separate verifiable facts from intuition. Mixing the two, I said, made truth an elusive, if not impossible quarry. One member of the dinner party, the librarian in the group, nodded her head firmly in agreement. By chance, she was studying the conundrums associated with that subject, and had come across an important book she felt I might enjoy reading. Jonathan Haidt, she told me, had done extensive research on how good people become so easily divided when discussing politics and religion, primarily because of the common tendency to mix facts and intuition. After briefly describing Heidt’s thesis, she kindly wrote his name and the title of his recently published book on a scrap of paper for me to refer to later.

I ordered the book the next day, and began reading it soon after it arrived in the mail. I heartily recommend it to all who value truth, but especially those brazen enough to ask the age-old question “What is it?” Truth isn’t as clear cut as we may think.

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References:

  • Haidt, Jonathan. 2012. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. Pantheon.

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